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Dr. Toon: Brother, Can You Spare a Toon?

With the economy tanking all around us, Martin Goodman takes a look at the best animated shorts to come out of the last Depression.

Martin Goodman.

Martin Goodman.

When is a depression not a depression? Perhaps it's when the economic spin docs decide to tell us overstressed taxpayers that it's merely a recession. Let's face the truth, readers; the economy has more than tanked; the economy is lying comatose at the bottom of the Marianas Trench holding a limp lily upon its motionless chest. The past administration, which long before President Obama used the terms Change (your job into none) and Hope (your home isn't foreclosed tomorrow), has exited laughing out loud, and at this time you, me, and everyone else who can't afford it is contributing to a bailout of mind-bending proportions. Brothers and sisters, $787 billion dollars is hardly chump change.

The Dow is kapow, the S&P is R.I.P., and retail sales have all turned tail. Like some macabre version of Survivor, the banks are competing with the Big Three automakers to see who folds first. Out here in Indiana, President Obama just left a speaking engagement in Elkhart, which seemed to be chosen as a forum due to its 15%-plus unemployment rate. I live in Madison County, which just announced that 1 out of every 331 homes has been foreclosed (don't worry, dear readers, AWN is keeping me afloat with this column). Those in Elkhart can probably sympathize with the 700,000 desperate men and women who joined the legion of the unemployed in January alone. It scarcely needs mentioning that the retirement plans and investments of those lucky enough to still be working would barely cover the cost of a South Park boxed set if they were to retire right now.

If we aren't in a depression, I suppose that only thing that could convince the media are bread lines, soup kitchens, bank holidays, and public appearances by President Obama in a wheelchair with a long cigarette holder clasped in his teeth while Beyoncé warbles "Happy Days are Here Again" in the background. This is the big D, people, but don't despair (much): We still have cartoons! During the Great Depression I (roughly 1929-1939), animation studios took note of the dire situation and answered the bell with cheerful cartoons that brightened the nation's days. These perky period pieces kept our spirits from falling faster than financiers jumping from Wall Street skyscrapers on Black Friday, and most of them are still entertaining (if dated) today. Herewith are my own faves:

Walt Disney (left) with Ub Iwerks, circa 1932. © Disney Enterprises Inc.

Walt Disney (left) with Ub Iwerks, circa 1932. © Disney Enterprises Inc.

What a Life (1932, Ub Iwerks studio)

Despite inconsistent animation and primitive character designs, this is one of the best Depression-related cartoons ever made, mostly because there is little room for lightness and fun. Ub Iwerks' perky little frog did not fight the Depression; in several of his cartoons he suffered, wallowed, and starved his unhappy way through history's greatest financial upheaval. What a Life! is not a happy cartoon, but it was far more realistic and in touch with the public than most of the lighthearted folderol being shown in theaters before feature films.

The short opens with Flip and his sidekick, a human kid, trying to raise a little cash by means of a street corner concert. Flip plays accordion and dances and the kid saws the cello as snow swirls down around them. The kid's pants are noticeably ragged. A small crowd applauds them but balks when the pair passes the hat. A disheveled bum takes the hat from Flip and walks off with it, leaving the frog with his own flea-infested scrap of a chapeau.

While fleeing a cop, Flip and the kid pass a café window and watch a cook flip pancakes. One of the pancakes sticks against the window and grows a mocking face. The pancake taunts the broke and starving pair, who has no recourse but to tighten their belts another notch while the cook ignores their plight. One of the starkest themes of the Depression, the misery of helpless children desperate with hunger, is actually portrayed in a cartoon short. The dejected pair trudges off into the snowy afternoon, finally deciding to sell their instruments at a pawn shop.

No sooner do Flip and the kid emerge with a shiny coin apiece than they see someone worse off. A blind, one-legged violinist dressed in rags plays a mournful tune, his dog weeping beside a tin cup. Overcome with pity, the frog and his sidekick give the man their coins. A limousine immediately pulls up and the violinist is revealed to be a wealthy fraud; our boys are now broke again and without any means of income. They are soon pursued by the cop again. The last minutes of the cartoon are taken up by Flip and the kid's misadventure with the cop's wife (a Betty Boop knockoff animated with rubbery élan), and by the end of the short the pair are on their way to jail.

There is a story that Herbert Hoover asked the famous entertainer Rudy Vallee to compose a song that would ease people's misery over the Depression. Vallee proved himself no friend to the beleaguered president; he instead recorded "Brother, Can You Spare a Dime." If cartoons are supposed to bring merriment and laughter to audiences, What a Life is the unwitting companion to Vallee's somber tune, an animated snapshot of the worst of times.

A collection of Oswald the Lucky Rabbit shorts from 2007, after Disney regained the rights to the character. © Disney. All rights reserved.

A collection of Oswald the Lucky Rabbit shorts from 2007, after Disney regained the rights to the character. © Disney. All rights reserved.

Confidence (1933)

Oswald the Lucky Rabbit had passed from Walt Disney's possession several years before this short was made, and in this cartoon the bouncy bunny was in the hands of Walter Lantz and Bill Nolan. Tex Avery, prior to his Warner Bros. days, was one of the animators. The short opens in a happy barnyard populated by typical rubber-hose beasties (including a few Mickey Mouse clones) who cavort with makeshift musical instruments during a break in work. Farmer Oswald oversees his henhouse with pride, but his happiness is short-lived. Down the road a toxic dump is giving birth to a sinister cloud. It morphs into a hooded, black-robed ghoul labeled "DEPRESSION" (a very literal cartoon, this!). The growling monster flies to poor Oswald's farm and infects all the animals with lethargy and despair. Oswald panics, screaming for a doctor.

Cut to scenes of angry mobs brawling in front of a failed bank, followed by a depiction of frantic investors watching their stocks fall. A worried citizen stashes his meager savings under a mattress. By now the desperate rabbit has reached the office of "Dr. Pill," begging for aid. The wise doc points to a picture of President Roosevelt and proclaims, "There's your doctor!" Oswald swiftly turns a trash can into a helicopter and flies to Washington, somersaulting his way into the White House (Homeland Security was more lax in those days).

Oswald asks FDR what would cure a depression, and the singing Chief Executive sings "Confidence! Smile! Grin! Laugh right out loud!" Luckily for Oswald, Franklin Delano has a big wooden barrel of "confidence" in the Oval Office, as well as a handy syringe. The flight back, courtesy of a statue's toupee (no, really) is much happier than the first journey. Oswald gambols through the streets, injecting bankers with confidence; soon investors are streaming into reopened banks. Oswald next revives his moribund farm, which emerges singin' and dancin' with more verve than ever.

This simplistic cartoon is no classic; some of the animation is reused, and much of the drawing is surprisingly poor. The depiction of Roosevelt is well below the level of caricature that Warner or Disney could have achieved at the time, and we never see the personification of the Depression actually defeated. Still, this is an exuberant and winning cartoon short made with lots of, well, confidence. Oswald himself did not survive the Great Depression (his last cartoon was made in 1938), but you can't say he didn't get his licks in first.

The wolf-at-the-door metaphor many were feeling in 1933 was perfectly realized in Disney's Three Little Pigs. © Disney. All rights reserved.

The wolf-at-the-door metaphor many were feeling in 1933 was perfectly realized in Disney's Three Little Pigs. © Disney. All rights reserved.

Three Little Pigs (1933, Walt Disney Studio)

If What a Life dealt with a situational view of the Depression and Confidence gave us a more literal reading, Three Little Pigs was a psychological masterpiece. This 1933 Silly Symphony, lauded for being a landmark in character animation, never directly addresses the Depression; the approach is symbolic and emotional, and this allows for much broader interpretation of the material. The foolish pigs are children of the Gilded Age, heirs to the roaring bull market of the 1920s, treating life as one long party. Suddenly, the proverbial wolf is at the door, and all their straw and stick investments are blown away in an unstoppable catastrophe. Like the poorest citizen standing in line as his bank closed its doors or the wealthiest speculator diving from the fourteenth floor, the two pigs are at the mercy of implacable, destructive forces.

There is only one place to hide. Practical Pig has prepared for a future that includes wolves. He is the untapped strength of a nation that may be down but certainly not out. Unlike his brothers, he is clad in work clothes, his demeanor reproachful, and his attitude businesslike. There is no easy way to defeat the wolf, and Practical Pig is not expecting divine intervention, either. He is self-reliant, serious and not afraid to roll up his sleeves to protect his assets. Practical Pig is a role model for hard times, a psychological guide to surviving a Depression. It would be ridiculous to picture him playing an accordion in hopes of a handout, and no injection of "confidence" could instill more of it in him than he already has. Practical is undoubtedly the central figure of this cartoon short, and this is by design. His triumph is America's.

If the short contained nothing but this allegory, it would still have been one of the greatest of its time. The brilliant color, innovative character animation, and tight pacing were unforgettable enough, but Three Little Pigs had yet another treat in store, one more swift kick in the Depression's rear. Frank Churchill and Pinto Colvig teamed up to write a playful ditty that ended up as the definitive anthem of defiance against the Depression. Whenever America's radios played "Who's Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf?" people rejoiced, sang along and felt some of the old fighting spirit crawl back into their dreary lives.

Three Little Pigs was ultimately a transformative cartoon; it changed the national mood and provided a rallying point wherever it was screened "Who's Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf?" became a hit and inspired Americans to believe in a New Deal and a road back to prosperity. Like the wolf, the Depression wasn't beaten on the first try; people would be singing about the Big Bad Wolf for a few years to come, but at least they were singing again, and that makes Three Little Pigs the greatest of the Depression-era cartoons.

It is inevitable that today's adult-oriented, prime-time cartoons will address the ruined legacy of Bush and company; reflections of the devastated economy and its human and financial cost will make their sarcastic appearances soon enough. What we will probably not see, however, is the quaint naiveté of the Depression-era cartoons, the cheerful exhortations that Confidence attempted to provide. Then again, that was 1932 and this is 2009. Conceptions of popular culture have undergone radical transformations since Flip the Frog cavorted in theaters. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for stark economic realities. As the foreclosures mount, the stock market declines and the unemployment lines grow, here's hoping that animation can once again help raise the spirits of a nation out of depression -- or Depression, as the case may be.

Martin "Dr. Toon" Goodman is a longtime student and fan of animation. He lives in Anderson, Indiana.

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